A skinny, brown-skinned girl sits on the porch of a weathered gray house in South Carolina. Pencil in hand, she writes a letter to another 12 year old in South Dakota — trying to make a pale-skinned version of herself understand what it’s like to live in a place where everyone who has power over you is white, and they all seem to hate you.
Fast forward 50 years. That little girl has grown up, but is still trying to make sense of her early years in a place where she was always considered “less than.” And trying to understand why her school teacher mother never chafed under second -class citizenship. Afraid to illuminate the truth of her early, painful memories, she first pens novels about southern families. “Her real life is what interests us,” publishers tell her agent. “Come back when she writes a memoir.” She thinks her life too simple and ordinary for a memoir; but occasionally, she creates small, but honest reflections for her writers’ group. They encourage her to dig deeper into the gold mine of her life. An essayist friend tells her that everything that happens in life is fodder for a writer. So, she begins to write essays about her life.
Her husband hatches a plan to get her true stories out into the world. He and his daughter buy her a domain name, “Onmymind.org” and tailor-make a web site for her. He encourages her to abandon the literary style of her novels and write in her own voice. It’s hard for her to abandon imitating the great writers she admired in college, but she does. Readers visit her website, read her stories and write laudatory messages about how much they enjoy her writing.
A friend, Linda Simone, suggests that she submit one of her oft-told stories to a contest that offers a $1,000 prize for the best story about a writer’s first experience of racism. She submits a piece about the summer of 1963 when, months after her mother’s unexpected death, she left South Carolina and worked in a girls’ camp on the shores of Lake Fairlee in Vermont. She does not win the $1,000 prize; but, she does get selected for inclusion in the anthology, “Children of the Dream.” Her essay is then selected for a reprint of the best essays from “Children of the Dream.” That reprint becomes a textbook, and she begins to receive reader’s comments about the power of her story. It makes her believe that perhaps her life has enough substance to interest readers. But there’s one last hurdle.
Southerners are taught upon exiting the womb that family business is not to be shared with the public. So, she believes that the life she shared with her mother, father and siblings doesn’t belong to her. However, she feels confident that her current life is hers. Essays about the state of her current life quickly make their way into local journals and commercial anthologies. Still, she can’t shake the need to reconcile the difficult years she spent in South Carolina and the need to understand her ambivalence toward her mother about her mother’s efforts to make a “proper” southern woman out of her. Without the intent of ever publishing her journey of self-discovery, she begins the search for what lay at the heart of the child who refused to accept the designation of “less than.”
She mines the depths of her past in three hour chunks. At night, after long work days when she’s too tired to make up anything, she sits at her computer and closes her eyes. In the voice of the five year old she remembers being, she begins her story. Along the way, sense memories rise and sweep her into a sea of recall where she relives the seasons of her childhood. On and off, for four years, she writes. By the end, she discovers the strength that sustained her. Then, she puts her memoir in a drawer — until this email message arrives from her friend Linda:
“This is your agent speaking. I think I’ve found a home for Primary Lessons. CavanKerry Press, a reputable poetry press has a memoir imprint and is accepting unagented, book-length memoirs during the month of February. Send them Primary Lessons.”
This email message makes her groan, but Linda is the same friend who prodded her to submit her piece to “Children of the Dream.” So, she prints out a hard copy, packages it along with a $20 reading fee and mails it to CavanKerry Press.
Six months later, a woman’s voice on the other end of a phone call asks for Sarah Bracey White. She answers affirmatively and the woman says, “This is Florenz Eiseman from CavanKerry Press. We’d like to publish your book.”
“What book did I send you,” she asks. Florenz laughs, then says, “That’s not usually the response I get when I call to say we’re going to publish an author’s work. We’d like to publish your memoir Primary Lessons. We thought it was the best of all the submissions we received during our open call.”
“Are you serious?” she asks Florenz. “Very serious,” Florenz answers. “I’m CavanKerry’s managing editor. You’ll soon get a call from Joan Cusak Handler , our publisher. And I’ll be sending you an email confirming everything I’ve said to you. Congratulations!”
She hangs up the phone, stares at it for a moment, then runs screaming into the living room to tell her husband the news: A publisher wants to publish her memoir!